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Mass Murder and Carnage Paint Grim Picture of 2014 in Santa Barbara County

Noozhawk's most-read stories of the year include the Isla Vista massacre, the quadruple murder near Goleta and other deadly incidents

A review of Noozhawk's most-read stories of 2014 reflects the grim reality of the year Santa Barbara County has experienced.

The South Coast, in particular, belied its reputation as a peaceful community overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as it was rocked by two mass murders, several high-profile deaths, and a riot and other violence taking place in the UC Santa Barbara/Isla Vista community.

While the year also was marked by high points and celebrations, Noozhawk's most read stories this year brought to light darker realities for readers.

Here are the 14 most-read stories of 2014:

7 Dead After Isla Vista Massacre (#1)

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The story of the year was a grim one that brought national news attention to Isla Vista, when 23-year-old Elliott Rodger went on a murderous rampage across the community, killing six people before shooting himself in the head on May 23.

“This obviously was the work of a mad man,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters, describing the violence as a “mass murder.”

Among the dead were Katherine Breann “Katie” Cooper, 22, of Chino Hills, and Veronika Elizabeth Weiss, 19, of Westlake Village. Both were UCSB students and members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority, and were shot outside of their sorority house.

A third woman, whose name was not released, suffered multiple gunshot wounds, but survived.

After shooting the three women, Rodger drove to the Isla Vista Deli Mart in the 6500 block of Pardall Road, got out of his vehicle and entered the store, where he fatally shot Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, a 20-year-old UCSB student from Los Osos.

Brown also said that earlier in the day, Rodger had stabbed to death two of his roommates and another man — Cheng Yuan Hong, 20, and George Chen, 19, both of San Jose, and Weihan Wang, 20, of Fremont —  in his Isla Vista apartment. 

Hong, Chen and Wang were also UC Santa Barbara students.

Details emerged online as the situation unfolded, and the shock turned to deep grief as Isla Vista and the larger community sought answers into Rodgers' past.

Overtones of misogyny haunted Rodgers' video entries, as he expressed hatred toward the women who resisted his advances.  

The incident brought many complex issues to the forefront — a simmering atmosphere of sexual violence in the college community, discussions about untreated mental health issues and gun control as well as how to best govern Isla Vista in the future.

The full story has yet to be told of what happened that night, however, as authorities still have yet to release Rodgers' autopsy and the full timeline of the killings.

[Click here to read the full story]

Law enforcement officers close ranks on April 5 on the streets of Isla Vista, where the Deltopia street party turned violent and ended up in what witnesses described as a riot. (Guiseppe Ricapito / UCSB The Bottom Line photo)

'Deltopia' Street Party Marred by Violence (#2)

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Earlier in the year, on April 5, Isla Vista also experienced a tumultuous event with Deltopia, a street festival that brought tens of thousands of people to the street party fueled by alcohol.

After a day-long party, the Deltopia event turned violent late that Saturday night, with law enforcement struggling to quell what they described as a "major incident" and "unlawful assembly."

At least six officers were injured, struck by rocks and bottles, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover.

Tear gas and rubber bullets were being deployed as deputies and officers working to regain control of the streets, and approximately 18 people were arrested during the disturbance, Hoover said.

"The whole incident started in the 6700 block of Del Playa Drive," Hoover said, adding that a UCSB police officer was injured at that location shortly before 10 p.m., and a large crowd — "an unlawful assembly" — formed shortly thereafter.

"The UCSB police officer was hit in the head with a backpack that contained large bottles of alcohol," Hoover said. "During the arrest, a large crowd gathered for several blocks and threw objects at law enforcement personnel, including rocks, bricks and bottles."

At least five other officers also were injured, Hoover said, 

"One was hit in the face with a brick, and two others were hit in the hand with bottles," she said. "Approximately 26 people were transported to area hospitals."

About 12,000 partiers kept law enforcement working on Friday, prompting approximately 36 arrests and 88 citations, including 26 for drunk in public, 47 for minor in possession of alcohol, and 22 open containers, Hoover said.

More than half of the day’s citations were issued to students who said they were from out of the area.

[Click here to read the full story]

UCSB water polo player Nicholas Johnson died March 24 after being pulled unresponsive from the Santa Barbara High School pool. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Death of Water Polo Player Nick Johnson (#3)

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On March 24, news spread that Nicholas Johnson, a beloved 19-year-old UCSB water polo player, had been found at the bottom of the swimming pool at Santa Barbara High School.

While doing laps with the swim team at his alma mater, other swimmers noticed he was at the bottom of the pool.

He was quickly pulled up to the pool deck, but despite prolonged efforts to revive him, he was pronounced dead at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Johnson was a sophomore majoring in psychology at UCSB, and had competed for Santa Barbara High School’s water polo and swimming teams as well as playing on the water polo team for the Santa Barbara Aquatics Club.

[Click here to read the full story]

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies stand near the body of a woman who was killed Oct. 11 when an Amtrak train struck a group on a railroad trestle along the Gaviota coast. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

UCSB Researchers Killed, Injured by Train (#4)

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Trains moving up and down the coast are a common sight in Santa Barbara County, but an excursion to take photos of the sunset ended in the death of one UCSB researcher after she was struck by a train Oct. 11.

The victim was identified as 26-year-old visiting scholar Mingyue Yuan from China. Two others were injured when they were struck by the train at Vista Point near Arroyo Hondo.

A fourth member of the group was uninjured.

The group of four people — two men and two women — were on the train trestle taking pictures when a southbound Amtrak train approached, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The group tried to get off of the train trestle, which bridges a deep coastal canyon, but some were struck by the passenger train. Yuan was knocked from the trestle and declared dead at the scene.

Yuan had been working in the lab of  professor Carla D’Antonio and research biologist Tom Dudley for about two weeks, according to a statement from UCSB.

"Mingyue Yuan had in her short time here made a very strong contribution to the spirit and energy of our lab," D'Antonio and Dudley wrote in a statement.

[Click here to read the full story]

Three people were killed and another critically injured in a crash on April 21 on Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. (Urban Hikers photo)

Three Dead in Highway 101 Crash (#5)

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Three young people — two of them high school students — were killed in a crash on Highway 101 near Castillo Street that occurred in the early morning hours of April 21.

Danielle Nicole Murillo and Jessica Lee Leffew, both 17 and from Torrance, and Brian Adonay Lopez, 20, of Los Angeles, were killed in the collision, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Leffew and Murillo were seniors at North High School in Torrance in Southern California, according to the Torrance Daily Breeze.

The crash occurred at 12:45 a.m., when a Mazda sedan driven by Erick Hoel August, 20, of Los Angeles veered to the right for unknown reasons and struck a guardrail, the CHP said.

The vehicle flipped and came to rest in the middle lane. Moments later, the car was struck by Kimberly Ann Kreis, 52, of Santa Barbara, who slammed into the left side of the Mazda.  Arriving firefighters founds two victims in the roadway and two others had to be extricated from the vehicle.

Kreis was uninjured in the collision.

Kreis was initially charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated but after an extensive CHP investigation, Kreis was only charged with drug charges, including misdemeanor driving while under the influence.

A statement from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office said that August fell asleep at the wheel, causing the vehicle to go off the right shoulder, hit the guard rail, and eventually land upside down in the roadway.

"I think the investigation was such that although (Kreis) may have caused the death of those people, we didn't think she was criminally liable," Prosecutor Arnie Tolks said. "It was CHP's decision, and the bottom line is that they didn't feel that even a sober person could have avoided the collision."

[Click here to read the full story]

Family was very important to UCSB water polo player Nicholas Johnson, right, who died March 24 while swimming laps at the Santa Barbara High School pool. He’s seen here with his brothers, Cooper and Sam, and his sister, Sophie, who were devastated by his passing. (Johnson family photo)

Water Polo Was Nick Johnson's Life (#6)

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Nicholas Johnson's exploits in the water were numerous before his death, but his family and friends recalled not only a star athlete, but a loving son and brother who loved to spend time at the beach and with family.

“When he wasn’t playing water polo, he was fishing,” his father, Berkeley “Augie” Johnson, told Noozhawk.

Nick was doing what he loved, swim training for water polo, at the time of his death, and was survived by his parents and three younger siblings, Sam, Cooper and Sophie.

“We lived on the pool deck,” Johnson said. “He’s not the biggest or the strongest, but he just grinds. He was always the first in the pool and last to leave; it’s just his nature.”

Nick had been trained since childhood by water polo coach Wolf Wigo, who went on to become his Santa Barbara Aquatics Club and UCSB coach. 

“Wolf said this was his year, that’s why he was training so hard,” said Johnson, who wondered at the time if Nick pushed too hard before his death.

Johnson's death was later ruled by the coroner to be an accidental drowning caused by shallow water blackout.

[Click here to read the full story]

California Highway Patrol officers and other emergency personnel responded Sunday evening to a fiery crash on Highway 101 in Santa Maria. Ashley B. Kerr, 25, of Santa Maria was killed and two other people suffered major injuries in the wreck. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Fatal Wreck on 101 in Santa Maria (#7)

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A 25-year-old Santa Maria woman was killed and two other people suffered major injuries the night of Dec. 28 in a fiery wreck on Highway 101 in Santa Maria.

A 1999 Chevy Blazer pulling a trailer struck the guardrail and went off southbound Highway 101, south of Donovan Road, at about 5:20 p.m., the California Highway Patrol said.

The Blazer hit two trees off the right side of the roadway, then struck the sound wall before slamming into a third tree, the CHP said.

The Blazer became engulfed in flames shortly after the collision, CHP Officer Rob Miller told Noozhawk.

A female passenger, Ashley B. Kerr, was trapped inside the fiery wreckage and was declared dead at the scene, Miller said.

The driver, Travis A. Dashek, 22, of Santa Maria, suffered a lacerated spleen, the CHP said, and was taken to Marian Regional Medical Center for treatment.

A second passenger, Kurt A. Hixenbaugh, 21, of Santa Maria, suffered broken vertebra, and also was hospitalized.

Dashek was  arrested on suspicion of felony driving under the influence. Additional charges are possible, CHP Officer Craig Carrier said.

[Click here to read the full story]

Blood stains were visible on an Isla Vista sidewalk after a stabbing March 8. Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies also had to deal with a large, unruly crowd just after midnight. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Isla Vista Stabbing, Unrest (#8)

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Unrest erupted in Isla Vista on March 8, when a stabbing in Isla Vista and resulting investigation set off a near-riot and ultimately the arrest of two college students

Kuriyan Summers-Dickinson, 18, of Lompoc, was charged with attempted murder after a fight broke out at a party in the 6600 block of Del Playa Drive about 10:45 p.m.

A 20-year-old man had been stabbed in the stomach on the sidewalk in front of the residence, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.

The victim, a Rhode Island resident who was in Isla Vista visiting his brother, was transported to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and admitted in critical condition, according to SBSO spokeswoman Kelly Hoover.

As deputies were investigating the stabbing, a large crowd gathered, and deputies arrested Otis Dezjuan Washington, 20, who was allegedly jumping on top of vehicles that were driving down Del Playa Drive, yelling, causing property damage and inciting the crowd.

Washington was arrested after a brief pursuit and charged with vehicle tampering and resisting arrest.

“While in the process of making the arrest, a large crowd of several hundred people gathered around the deputies and began chanting and throwing bottles,” Hoover said, adding that the crowd grew to more than 1,000 people, and officers were forced to use pepper spray and batons to push back individuals who refused to disperse.

[Click here to read the full story]

Flames from the Miguelito Canyon Fire burn behind a Lompoc neighborhood on May 13. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Miguelito Fire Threatens Lompoc Homes (#9)

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Hundreds of homes were threatened when a vegetation fire broke out on May 13 in Miguelito Canyon, just south of Lompoc, when hot winds coupled with ample, dry brush created an incendiary situation.

Santa Barbara County Fire officials estimated that some 1,200 residences and commercial properties were affected by the evacuation, including the Superior Court building in Lompoc. 

Seven hours later, residents were allowed back into their homes and Highway 1 was reopened.

The fire charred more than 600 acres, but no structures were damaged and no injuries were reported.

Untrimmed trees coming in contact with high-voltage power lines were blamed for causing the blaze.

[Click here to read the full story]

Former DA Tom Sneddon Dies (#10)

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Former Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, best known for prosecuting pop star Michael Jackson, died Nov. 1 in Santa Barbara.

Sneddon, 73, passed away at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital from complications following his cancer diagnosis, with his family at his side, according to Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

Sneddon was elected to the district attorney’s post in 1983, and served until his retirement in 2010.

On two occasions — in 1993 and 2005 — Sneddon pursued child-molestation charges against Jackson, who lived at Neverland Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Tom Sneddon

No charges were filed after the 1993 investigation, but the 2005 case went to trial and drew international attention.

Sneddon lead the prosecution during the high profile trial, in which a Superior Court jury ultimately found Jackson not guilty on all charges.

Sneddon joined the District Attorney’s Office in 1969, rising through the ranks before being elected to the department’s top spot in 1983, and District Attorney Joyce Dudley told Noozhawk that Sneddon was “a pioneer in many areas of prosecution, especially crimes against vulnerable victims,” noting that he founded the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team.

“He was also a mentor to most of the deputy district attorneys in our county, as well as many DAs throughout our country,” Dudley said.

[Click here to read the full story]

Emergency personnel head up the Cold Spring Trail in the Montecito foothills on March 17 after a hiker was found dead and his companion seriously injured. (Urban Hikers photo)

Hiker Dies, Companion Hurt on Cold Spring Trail (#11)

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A weekend hike turned deadly for a Ventura man, whose body was found along Cold Springs Trail on March 17.

His female hiking partner was later rescued from the Tangerine Falls area after being seriously injured.

Brenden Michael Vega, 22, of Ventura was found along the trail after having gone hiking with friend, Saylor Guilliams, 22, of Ventura, around 4 p.m. the day prior.

They had left late in the day and had not been sufficiently prepared for the hike, according to Kelly Hoover, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.

The hikers fell and injured themselves sevearl times, with Vega seriously injuring his arm and Guilliams suffered two broken ankles and a broken wrist, Hoover said.

Hoover said Vega yelled for help for several hours and then left Guilliams alone to go for help since there was no cell service in the area.

When Vega traveled down the trail to get help, Hoover said, he was fatally injured when he fell again — 20 to 30 feet down a rocky ledge. 

Separate groups of hikers found Vega's body and Guilliams unresponsive the next day, and sheriff’s deputies and the Search & Rescue Team responded to the area and recovered Vega’s body, she said.

Guilliams was rescued several hours later.

[Click here to read the full story]

Coroner’s Bureau staff removed four bodies from a house near Goleta on Aug. 12. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Four Found Dead in Home Near Goleta (#12)

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The community's second mass murder in 2014 was discovered on Aug. 11, when police arrived to find that four people — two of them children — had been stabbed to death inside a home in the quiet neighborhood near Foothill Elementary School.

Shortly after 11 p.m. on Aug. 11, Nicolas Etienne Holzer called 9-1-1 and allegedly made a chilling admission to a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher.

“In a calm and matter of fact manner, (Holzer) told a dispatcher that he had killed his family,” Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters. 

Deputies who arrived at the house on the 600 block of Walnut Park Lane encountered a horrific scene, Brown said — the bodies of Holzer’s parents and his two sons, all of whom had suffered multiple stab wounds. The family’s Australian shepherd also had been stabbed to death.

The victims were identified as William Charles Holzer, 73, Sheila Garard Holzer, 74, Sebastian Holzer, 13, and Vincent Holzer, 10.

Holzer, 45, was booked into County Jail on four counts of murder, and was being held without bail, Brown said. 

All of the victims had been stabbed repeatedly, Brown said, and deputies recovered two large kitchen knives they believe were used in the killings.

“Holzer told detectives that he had killed his family to fulfill what he believed was his destiny,” Brown said.

Holzer had gained full custody of his sons following a divorce eight or nine years ago, Brown said, and he and his sons had been living with the elder Holzers at their home off Ribera Drive for the past seven years.

Holzer is set to appear in court again in January on multiple murder charges.

[Click here to read the full story]

A sailboat ended up on the sand on March 1 at Goleta Beach County Park, which was evacuated and closed as a precaution due to high tides and surf. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Winter Storm Brings Excitement to SB (#13)    

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Locals eagerly kept up with the latest news on last spring's rainstorms, with a video of a wave crashing through the Moby Dick Restaurant bringing traffic to its peak.

Jill Freeland posted a video of a wave breaking through the Moby Dick Restaurant's dining room window on Stearns Wharf. No one was seriously injured.

“I really didn’t expect it to break,” Freeland told Noozhawk. “Another swell beforehand came pretty close. We were just expecting some excitement. You never know with swell and tide.”

The winter storm forced the restaurant to close, along with the outer end of the wharf and a long list of other South Coast locations battered by high tides, heavy surf, gusty winds and pummeling rain. Goleta Beach Park was also closed and evacuated and part of the Gaviota Pier collapsed into the ocean.

[Click here to read the full story]

Neighbors and friends left tributes on the sidewalk outside the Walnut Park Lane home where four members of the Holzer family were stabbed to death in August. Investigators have not said what they believe triggered the violent attack, but clues may lie in court records detailing the custody battle between Nicolas Holzer, the alleged killer, and his former wife. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Holzer Murders May Hinge on Custody Battle (#14) 

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More light was shed by court documents on the bitter custody battle that unfolded prior to the Holzer murders that occurred in August.

Nicolas Holzer is accused of fatally stabbing his sons, Sebastian, 13, and Vincent, 10; his parents, Sheila Garard Holzer, 74, and William Charles Holzer, 73; and the family dog at the home they all shared on Walnut Park Lane, and law enforcement say it's unclear what precipitated the murders.

But clues to what triggered the carnage may lie, in part, in the nasty custody fight between Holzer and his former wife that began in 2006 as the couple was going through a divorce.

An inches-thick Superior Court file obtained by Noozhawk chronicles the battle between Holzer and Juana Holzer, replete with accusations of mental illness, aggressive and controlling behavior, and sexual abuse.

The court ultimately granted Holzer full custody of their children, and largely cut off Juana from contact with the two boys.

Family law attorney Matthew Long, who represented Holzer in the divorce, told Noozhawk that the case was one of the more protracted court custody cases he’s handled. But he said there was nothing in the custody case and Holzer’s interaction with the family court system that raised a concern.

“He always presented as a normal guy, which I know sounds preposterous given the events that unfolded,” Long said. “That’s what’s so disturbing about this. We want to have some kind of an explanation.”

Those close to Holzer’s ex-wife, Juana, said that the custody battle was costly and protracted, and taxed her to the brink.

The custody file is more than two inches thick and spans more than five years, outlining a contentious custody battle for the boys. 

The records paint a heartbreaking picture of two young children caught in the crossfire. The file also depicts a mother who had little recourse or money to fight a financially secure father in the court battle, and who gradually lost more and more contact with her sons.

[Click here to read the full story]

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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